Things are not going well at all with the Bangladesh TV world. The decision by the Supreme Court that no news or headlines can be sponsored commercially is another blow to the revenue mechanism that is in place albeit shakily. Meanwhile, Desh TV has decided to chop its news section signaling that media ill health is epidemic.
In Bangladesh like elsewhere, TV dominates the media landscape. Once there was only one channel- government owned BTV- but as disposable billions grew - so did media outlets. The main focus has obviously been on TV stations given its reach and visibility.
The concentration of such stations and ownership patterns are also linked to higher dependence on those close to the ruling governments under different regimes. Thus, most private TV broadcasting stations are generally limited to a cluster of loyalists, political or economic. This often happens in the world of connection capitalism.
The argument once was that the market would be the great equalizer as no station would want to lose a large chunk of the audience share since all parties have followers. After all, biased media doesn’t make good business sense in competitive economies.
Media and non- market economies
However, others argue that political and economic pluralism is declining in Bangladesh with almost overwhelming support for only one party as the election of 2018 results claim. More importantly, Bangladesh may not have a market based economy at all. The stations may be seeking endorsement of the powers that be rather than media product selling. The election coverage of 2018 was a good pointer. The recent meeting between the media owners and the PM where they sought handouts was a confirmation.
But even if that happens the crisis of funding by advertisements, its main source of income will remain. As more and more stations join the parade, the advertisement pie shrinks. As more and more stations say the same things, audience interest declines. And if all stations offer the same, the consumer can’t make product differentiation. So how will the audience choose a station? Hence, to which station will advertisers go? Basically, audience runs to India which offers better products.
Outlets are caught between political loyalty and market reality. As money is made more from connection economics than open market competition, the choice is easy to make. But that also means stations are less of media business units and more of extra- media business support subsidiaries. They also become politically less useful as all tend to say the same. And thus running a media outlet becomes more expensive.
A look at the top 20 stations are the following. They are hardly definitive and the degree of loyalty also differs. Pro-AL also means pro-government at this moment but could be pro-BNP or any other if power shifts.
1. Channel I – Independent
2. ATN News – pro-government/AL
3. ATN Bangla – pro-government/AL
4. Ekattur TV- pro- AL
5. DBC- pro-AL and owned by AL media Advisor
6. Independent TV- Pro-AL and owned by the PM’s advisor
7. NTV- owned by top BNP (opposition party which held power) leader now not in Bangladesh and banned from running the station
8. Bangla Vision – pro-BNP once but owners not active now
9. Ekushey TV – pro-AL/government. Ex-owner was pro-BNP and now in jail
10. Desh TV – owned by AL MP
11. RTV- pro-AL MP
12. Somoy TV – owned by AL minister of last cabinet
13. Jamuna TV- owned partly by JP MP
14. News24 – pro- government hence pro-AL now
15. Nagorik TV- Owned by ex-Mayor’s family who was pro-AL
16. Machranga – independent ????
17. Channel 24- pro-/government /AL
18. Deepto TV – independent
19. GTV- owned by AL MP
20. SATV- pro-government/AL
21. Boisakhi – pro-AL / independent
22. Asian TV – independent
23. Mohona TV – owned by AL MP
24. My TV – independent
25. Duronta TV – children’s TV owned by AL cabinet member
26. Bijoy TV – AL minister
The list shows TV ownership and affiliation with ruling party is highly positive. It’s inevitable of course since the license is given by the Government on several considerations including political risk. But it’s not just loyalists of conviction or convenience but ruling party MPs and cabinet members who are owners, full or part, of many such stations.
The issue is about regime friendly ownership. It doesn’t matter which regime it is. NTV and Banglavision licenses were granted under the BNP regime and were/are owned by top notch leaders of that party. The AL regime has been in power for a decade and this period also means that those with enough resources to invest in a non- profit sector like media have grown over a decade with connections with the ruling class.
Where is the profit then?
Both profit and non-profit factors determines the character of media including TV in BD. Only the hyper rich can afford to invest millions and not expect money in return. However, the objective of the investment is not direct profit but protection of profit already made and future advantages as a business tycoon with media support. Hence, its investment for indirect profit.
This is apart from political loyalty and activism considerations of some.
There are also several owners who have made money but are also politically active. It applies to both the BNP and AL friendly channels. Thus politics and business do co-exist.
Naturally it’s not possible to survive by taking on a confrontational stand against the government in any scenario. The clout of the government is always high and they can shut down or make life extremely difficult for anyone crossing the wrong line. So common sense should prevail.
Media power concentration and safe media
The issue is of concentration of media power and market control and by extension audience participation. It’s also about the nature of market forces and how the media outlets inter-act with it. For the producers, its means basically producing the same product with as less variety as possible because all /most belong to the same political banner and produce safe media.
But for the consumer it’s a different issue. The person called consumer is a finicky being and he likes variety but since almost all channels are of the same ilk, no matter how safe it might be, they all sound the same. The problem of course is more for exclusive “news and views” channels or products who have to circulate the same content over and over again. Entertainment based channels are safer/better off.
The entertainment channels can somehow survive as their production costs are minimal hence low grade but for those who churn out audio-visual political op-eds, the crisis has peaked. Many are simply tuning out and moving on to the entertainment world but this segment is largely under the control of very professional and glitzy Indian channels who fly straight into the heart of the local viewers.
Market income share troubles
So audio visual media is facing difficulties. As more and more channels are coming in, the advertisement market share is not proportionately increasing. A significant part of the money of owners is made through government contracts and not consumer brand marketing. The ad market is not big enough to support endless number of stations by owners who are themselves not consumer market players. So the revenue pie for TV stations are limited as the consumer product market is limited.
Hence per station share of adverts is declining. That means less and less investment for programme production which leads to lesser quality and thus lesser number of interested viewers. The ever awareness of laws and surveillance, supervision and censorship also makes many issues and sectors off limits to news media.
Bangladesh media therefore presents an interesting case of concentration of wealth leading to concentration of power leading to concentration of media ownership amongst a small band of people of similar type that are offering far too similar products to an audience that can exercise switching channel options.
It’s ironical that in this scenario the channel that is making most money is Channel I, which is the oldest private channel, independent of political branding, with a market not political angle. Next comes Dipto TV which introduced dubbed Middle Eastern serials that broke the Zee monopoly in the entertainment sector. MY TV which broadcasts old films is another and Asian TV markets low end entertainment products. All are mixed- news and songs, non-political ownership and playing the market. Interestingly, all four owners come from market economy background.